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Mind in LifeReview - Mind in Life
Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind
by Evan Thompson
Belknap, 2007
Review by Taede A. Smedes, Ph.D.
May 20th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 21)

Some books of an interdisciplinary nature are incredibly difficult to categorize. Thompson's massive 542-page tome Mind in Life is such a book. On the one hand it is a densely-written account of phenomenological philosophy, engaging in discussions concerning the scientific merits of the philosophy of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. At some points in the book Thompson's writing style -- which is quite dense and often technical -- takes an apologetic turn when he argues that "Phenomenological analysis can do important philosophical and scientific work" (269). In effect, this whole book could be considered an apology for a more holistic and integral approach to the sciences of life and mind.

On the other hand, it is a book on (the philosophy of) biology, criticizing reductionist approaches in evolutionary biology (especially the genocentric approaches of Dawkins c.s.), and arguing for a more holistic developmental systems approach, such as the autopoiesis-theory that was developed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Thompson is even so bold as to criticize current understandings of evolutionary theory: he argues for a reinterpretation and reconceptualization of the notions of 'evolution' and 'natural selection' in terms of the autopoiesis theory put forward by Maturana and Varela.

Finally, the book is a discussion of developments in the sciences and philosophy of mind, where Thompson uses the approaches from phenomenology in order to come to a more holistic view of the relationship between mind, body, and world. Currently, the sciences of mind are unable to bridge the explanatory gap between mind and life, which is the result of Descartes' dualistic thinking. Although dualism is no longer popular among scientists, as Thompson acknowledges, the explanatory gap is still a chasm because nowadays the sciences of mind focus solely on the brain. Thompson's more integral and holistic approach takes its lead from Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological anthropology, where mind, body, and world (or environment) become an extended unity. Thompson believes that this way the explanatory gap is not closed, but that it simply vanishes as an illusion that was created by outdated concepts, that admittedly still have a firm grip on science and philosophy. Considered from a broader framework, Thompson's book shows the tension between more analytic approaches in philosophy of mind, and the (increasingly influential) phenomenological approaches.

The central message of the book is that there is a deep continuity between life and mind via embodied existence and it is the goal of this book to show the fruitfulness of such a view for the sciences of life and mind. Thompson first explains in the four chapters of part one the historical relationship between the cognitive sciences and phenomenology. The descriptions are fairly elementary, leaving many of the complexities of phenomenological thinking aside, but to someone unfamiliar to phenomenological philosophy they are nonetheless challenging. Even more challenging is the second part of the book, where Thompson tries to come to a new "philosophy of the organism" not unlike that of Hans Jonas. He argues that the concept of autopoiesis (a kind of self-organization) is the characteristic aspect of living systems: living systems and their environment comprise an irreducible interactive process where the one is constantly being defined by and itself defining the other. The concept of autopoiesis, or self-production and self-maintenance, is notoriously difficult, and by discussing the complexities involved in defining the concept, Thompson does not exactly reduce the conceptual vagueness of the concept.

The third part of the book is the longest and also the toughest because of its technical descriptions. In chapters eight to thirteen Thompson describes aspects of consciousness, such as sensorimotor subjectivity (the feeling of self and otherness through sensorimotor activity), mental imagery, our awareness of time and change, emotions, and finally, empathy and enculturation, and he argues that the phenomenological approach can elucidate many of the mysteries that still surround these aspects. A thorough knowledge of discussions in philosophy of mind is needed if one wants to really understand where Thompson is going.

This is a big book, not only in view of its physical dimensions, but also in view of its content: Thompson proposes a revision of evolutionary theory and the sciences of mind by introducing phenomenological concepts. Some ideas discussed in this book are already taken up by other philosophers of mind, such as an emphasis on the notion of the embodied mind (i.e. the role of the body in cognitive processes). But there remains a distinction between philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists, and I really cannot tell how much Thompson's views will add to the research activities of the latter. One problem with the phenomenological approach Thompson puts forward in this book is that the concepts are incredibly vague. After having read the book, I am still not able to explain in everyday language what Thompson means by his "enactive approach". Also the concept of cognition, which Thompson defines as "behavior or conduct in relation to meaning and norms that the system itself enacts or brings forth on the basis of its autonomy" (126) is controversial and vague, although it is fundamental to this book as a whole.

Sometimes Thompson even seems to have an attitude which can be summarized as "If the theory doesn't fit reality, too bad for reality". For example, on page 127 he writes: "I will leave it for the scientists to work out in whichever way is most productive for their research. For my purposes it is enough to maintain that any living system is both an autopoietic and a cognitive system, for this thesis is sufficient to establish a deep continuity of life and mind". This passage can be read as expressing a kind of philosophical arrogance that wants to force scientists to think into a certain conceptual mold that will fit and confirm the philosophical system that Thompson proposes. In other words, this book proposes a new way of thinking for scientists, but it is not always clear to what extent Thompson himself listens to what scientists have to say on the matter.

Ending on a more positive note, however, I think this book deserves close study, since it offers a holistic and dynamic perspective on how life and mind interact and how mind, body, and world form an inseparable unity. Despite the abstract and technical writing style, the many asides and summaries of other people's research, Thompson has written a book that for philosophers may give a new incentive to rethink and reconceptualize our place in the world that surpasses dualistic thinking. If that was the purpose of the book, it has succeeded.

© 2008 Taede A. Smedes

Dr. Smedes is a philosopher of religion and a research fellow at the Faculty of Theology of the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium.

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